“It’s like a Las Vegas casino in there … but without the fun,” I overhear a state legislator joke as she stands outside the Obrien building on the campus of the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, grabbing a few stolen moments of fresh air and sunshine.
I’m pretty sure what she means is not that there’s any gambling going on inside—but that legislators have been meeting for endless hours in windowless rooms where it’s hard to tell whether it’s day or night.
And there’s more of the same coming, now that the state Legislature’s regular 105-day session is a distant memory, its month-long first special session has whisked by with little result, and Governor Jay Inslee has brought the Legislature back for a second special session.
I’m here at the capitol on a sort of “everyday-citizen” mission. Not many of us get to see what’s happening at the Legislature first-hand, particularly since the state capitol is a long drive from just about everywhere. So, as some wonder whether the Legislature will ever pass a new two-year budget in time to stop a government shutdown June 30th, I’ve made the trek to Olympia for a citizen’s look-see. And to get a better idea of how the public can get their opinions heard.
If, like I did, you’re wondering where one would start, here’s what I found: the Legislative Hotline, at 1-800-562-6000. Just call during business hours, and you can ask where and when senators or house members are meeting, how to get in touch with your legislators or find out where their offices are, where to park, or nearly anything else about the Legislature or state government.
Another information smorgasbord is the state legislature’s website, at www.leg.wa.gov.
I find my way to a House Appropriations meeting, where legislators plan to discuss bills on spending on K- 12 education and on social services for the aged, blind, disabled and needy families. I walk in and grab a seat, trying to look like I belong.
Of course, as a member of the public I do belong. Every meeting at the Legislature is open to the public, except when Republicans or Democrats are “caucusing” to strategize among just themselves.
It’s just that it can be hard to remember not to be intimidated, surrounded as one is here by stately buildings and important-looking characters dashing everywhere.
As I sit in the meeting room, at first all there is to do is wait. And wait. Some of the representatives are still out caucusing, while the others await their return. So everyone watches the Mariners baseball game on the screen that normally displays the bills being discussed.
Watching Mariner’s baseball while the state government teeters on the edge of shutdown?! you might ask.
I wondered, too. But I’ve just learned something few seem to know: Legislators are paid nothing additional for special sessions, even if it means months of extra work at the Legislature, while also losing work time at the other jobs many legislators have. They do receive a “per diem” for daily expenses, but it’s lower than what the federal government says is needed to cover basics like housing and food.
All things considered, maybe a bit of Mariner’s baseball is acceptable.
Eventually, both the Republicans and the Democrats are here, and discussion is underway. “This gets us to the point of compromise with the other body,” House Appropriations Chair Ross Hunter says as the legislators prepare to vote and pass the bill on.
“Compromise” between the House, where Democrats are in the majority, and the Senate, where the Republicans are in control, hasn’t exactly been overflowing.
The two sides have continued to scuffle over how to meet the State Supreme-Court-mandated requirements to potentially put an additional $1 billion into Washington state’s public education, close a big budget gap, and keep state programs running —not to mention settling other big issues like a transportation tax package (read: bridges falling down) and drunk-driving legislation.
The appropriations meeting ends, and afterwards I find my way to the office of the only state legislator I’ve really talked to before, at a session some months back about creating a state bank for Washington—11th District Senator Bob Hasegawa.
I ask him how everyday people can have an impact on these budget battles. “People should contact their legislators,” Hasegawa replies. “They should tell them to fund a humane budget.”
From a candy bowl in Hasegawa’s office, I procure a Snickers bar on my way out, to help fuel the long trip home.
As I walk across the capitol campus, past the grand buildings, somehow the place feels a little less intimidating and more like it should feel — like a place where the people’s business gets done, for the benefit of everyone.
Barb Olsen is a local writer and columnist who writes regularly about the Washington State Legislature.